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‘Listening to Akala is a reminder of how ugly recent British history was’

Akala’s take on the brutality of recent history is startling for younger listeners, but it may also shock those who lived through those times, Robin Ince writes.

I first saw Akala where I discover most of my rappers, watching BBC’s Question Time.

His eloquence and intelligence shone out in this arena of pomposity, hypocrisy and arrogance. It is a programme whose primary purpose is to make everyone unhappy and, according to social media, it usually achieves that. It says much for our political discourse that any glimmers of sanity or inspiration will usually come from the “celebrity” guest such as Benjamin Zephaniah, Charlotte Church or Akala, people whose experience mixed with unbounded curiosity is in stark contrast to the fenced-in and spin dizzy minds of so many politicians and professional commentators.

Radio 4 recently serialised Akala’s book, Natives: Race & Class in the Ruins of Empire. Like Russell T Davies’s It’s A Sin, the brutality of recent history may startle people, not merely those who were not born then, but also those who lived through these times but viewed it through the prism of our newspapers.

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As Akala says in the first episode, “It’s easy for people just slightly younger than myself and born into a relative degree of multiculturalism to forget just how recently basic public decency towards Black folks was won in this country, but I was born in the Eighties.”

He begins with the New Cross Fire of January 1981. It was Yvonne Ruddock’s 16th birthday party and 13 young Black people died following a fire that many believe was a racist arson attack. The family of the dead were treated as suspects rather than victims and the investigation was bungled. This led to a “Black People’s Day of Action”, a march of 20,000 people across London. It was predominantly peaceful but The Sun newspaper went with the headline “ The Day the Blacks Ran Riot in London”.

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On establishment reaction to the murders, Akala says, “the prime minister did not even offer condolences to what were apparently British children and their families. Of course, Thatcher could not in her heart of hearts express sympathy for black British children while supporting an apartheid government rooted in the idea that Black people were sub-human, so at least she was consistent.” He pulls no punches.

For Akala, it is vital that the victims of violently racist beliefs are not just abstractions or a news story

There are further stories of brutality and deaths. My teenage memory was that the newspaper reaction to the brutality itself was muted while their response to protests and riots caused by the brutality was shrill and judgemental. For Akala, it is vital that the victims are not just abstractions or a news story. Those left behind are still tethered to the tragedies and losses that were the result of violently racist beliefs.

This abridged reading led me straight to the bookshop so I could read Natives in its entirety. Akala’s approach reminded me of Laura Bates, pioneer of Everyday Sexism, and her most recent book Men Who Hate Women. Neither author is playing a blame game, they are generous writers able to make us look from many angles but eager to make us aware of a story we may be blind to and of perspectives we may have been unaware of.

I was recently arguing with someone like me (I might even have been arguing with me, I spend a lot of time feuding in my head) about the idea of checking privilege and of thinking about the rights you have or had which may have been invisible to you. He felt it was all nonsense, why should he feel ashamed of who he was? I do not see that trying to understand others’ experiences immediately makes you the victim, though try explaining that to the pundits who have spent 40 years writing columns about how the worst thing to be nowadays is a straight, white, middle-class man (the statistics on that don’t hold up under scrutiny).

Akala sums up the world he was born into, “I was not born with an opinion of the world, but it clearly seemed the world had an opinion of people like me.”

Natives: Race & Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala is on BBC Sounds

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